Archiving Your Digital Family History Files: Introduction

This week is Preservation Week! Many local libraries and archives will have some great preservation events this week, and The Family Curator has highlighted a couple free webinars about preservation that are happening this week. This week I’m also launching this five-part blog series about preserving and archiving your digital family history files. Stay tuned for the next installment coming soon!

Many of us are familiar with the piles of paper that accumulate in our lives as a result of our genealogy research. But what about the “invisible” digital clutter that accumulates while we’re researching? What are you doing to organize and keep track of those digital files?

computer desk electronics indoors
Oh, how many files are downloaded and enter the digital abyss on our computers! Will they ever be found again?

Do any of these situations sound familiar to you?

  • You know you downloaded your ancestor’s census record from Ancestry, but you don’t know where it went.
  • You have genealogy files spread out across various computers, some are backed up on a hard drive, some have been emailed to yourself, and others could possibly be on this other flash drive…
  • You have some downloaded records on your computer, but you don’t remember why you downloaded them, where they came from, or who they belong to.
  • You took a bunch of photos at a cemetery of your family’s headstones, but you never put them on your computer, and now you don’t know where they are.
  • You have some files on your computer that have a weird or outdated file format, and you aren’t able to open them, or it says the files are corrupted and can’t be opened.
  • Your general “Genealogy” folder on your computer is a huge grab-bag of miscellaneous files, scanned photos, and documents with unrecognizable file names. It takes you a long time to find a file that you need to use.

This five-part, in-depth blog series is going to help you create your own Digital Family History Archive, where you’ll keep all your digital files relating to your family history. I’ll share some steps to take that will help you solve some of the issues that are mentioned above, and will save you time when you’re looking for files that you’ve saved. I’ll focus mainly on kinds of files that are common in your genealogy research, but these techniques could also be applied all your other digital files that are not genealogy related.

First, I want to talk about inherent differences between our paper genealogy “stuff” and our digital genealogy “stuff.” Their major differences will have a big impact on how we’ll preserve this “stuff.” What do you do if you want to preserve a photo or a document? Generally, you’d put it in some kind of protective covering, like a sleeve, envelope, folder, or box, and you’d put it on a shelf or in a closet. Generally, unless you have a flood, fire, or bug infestation, your photo or document will be in just about the same condition in 20, 30, or 80 years. You won’t need anything except your eyes and some light to be able to see what it is. Now, let’s think of what would happen if we did the same thing with our digital files 30 years ago. What if we had saved a bunch of scanned photos and documents on several floppy discs, put those in an envelope, and let them sit in our closets for 30 years? Would you be able to access them today? How would you know what was on the floppy disc? Do you still have an apparatus to read the floppy discs? And if you did, would the floppy discs still be readable? And if they were, are the file formats still able to be opened today? (For example, was it saved in a proprietary file format that is not longer in use?) And if they are, is the quality of the photos and documents still useful today?

old-791756_1920 copy
Your digital photos need to be handled differently than these printed photos.

Chances are, digital “stuff” that you hide away in a closet for 30 or 50 years is not going to be accessible or useful after that stretch of time. Archiving digital files is inherently different from paper files because it requires continual “refreshing” (or updating of file formats), and “migration” (or moving the files to new media before the old media becomes obsolete or not functional). Digital files are dependent upon specific media and software to access them. As technology progresses, specific media formats, like the floppy disk, VHS, etc. become obsolete in a relatively short time span. Even today, if your files are backed up “in the cloud,” that will not guarantee that you or your descendants will be able to access those files 30 years from now. If we really want our digital files to last as long as our paper files, we need to do a few extra steps.

Second, I want to specify that Digital Archiving is not the same as simply backing up your files. Backups are very useful, but they are primarily meant for short-term retrieval, such as having a backup in case your computer crashes tomorrow. It’s just a mirror copy of what you have stored in another place. Digital archiving includes active decision making, adding metadata to your files, organizing the files into folders, backing up your files, and planning to migrate your files to new media every few years. So, backups are part of the archiving process, but it’s not the only step you need to take. You’ll learn more about these specific pieces of the process in further blog posts!

Digital Archiving has two main goals: Preservation and Accessibility. We want to preserve the integrity of the files so that they remain stable and recognizable, and we want them to last as long (or longer!) than our paper files. We also want our digital files to be accessible so we can find them and use them when needed. We should be able to easily find them and open them at any time.

How do we ensure both preservation and future accessibility? We’ll be creating one consolidated place that you’ll store all your digital files, which will make it easier to maintain and upgrade when necessary. Especially if you have a lot of digital genealogy “stuff,” it will take a little bit of elbow grease to locate and organize it all, but the end result will be worth it! We’ll take it one step at a time and one piece at a time so that you won’t get overwhelmed. In the end, you’ll easily be able to locate any record you have in a moment’s notice, and you’ll have the piece of mind that your digital files will be safe for the future. Are you ready to get started?

Stay tuned for the next blog post! The next few blog posts will outline the steps that you need to take to create your Digital Family History Archive. These steps include:

  1. Find: Locate all your digital genealogy “stuff.” Make an inventory of everything you need to go through.
  2. Organize: Find a new place to locate your archive, and create an organizational system for the files.
  3. Preserve: Decide what’s worth saving. Update file formats and metadata. Move your files into your organizational system.
  4. Protect: Back up your archive in several places and protect it against data loss. Make a plan for keeping your files organized and migrated to new storage when needed.

(Note: These steps are loosely based on the recommended steps for Digital Preservation and Personal Digital Archiving by the Library of Congress and American Library Association. I have expanded the basic steps and added my own recommendations based on my own experiences with archiving my own family history files.) 


Archiving Your Digital Genealogy Files


24 thoughts on “Archiving Your Digital Family History Files: Introduction

  1. In all honesty it’s unlikely that the image file formats that people will most commonly have are going to become obsolete. TIFF and JPEG in particular are most unlikely to become obsolete, so I don’t think we need to over emphasise the amount of migration that will be required. Standard office formats are also likely to become inaccessible.

    There can be problems with stuff people scanned themselves using the software that came with their scanner — I’ve been having to help my father-in-law with stuffed he’d scanned to .cps which has been a bit problematic.

    David Underdown (senior digital archivist, The National Archives — UK)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the input! It’s true most files are not going to need constant migration, but like you mention, some people may have old legacy files that they may need to take a second look at. For example, I had a whole year’s worth of family photos on Kodak CDs, of which has currently inaccessible file formats.


  2. Thank you; I’m looking forward to reading everything! My husband jokes that I simply move one pile to another. Gotta get organized and on top of things.


  3. Thank you for this “wake up call” post! I look forward to reading the rest of them in the series!


  4. This post could not have come at a better time. I am so overwhelmed by all the documents I have downloaded and have no method to this madness. I can’t wait to read the rest. Thank you!


    1. I’m glad I could help Daisha! My biggest piece of advice would be to do it a little at a time. Don’t try to do too much all at once, because it can be overwhelming. Start by making a list of the files that you need to archive. You’ll work through that list one item at a time. You can do it!


  5. Looking forward to the next post! With the speed in which technology moves these days, it doesn’t take much time before our files can become obsolete. Thanks .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so very much for this tutorial. I have been so overwhelmed by all of my records, pics, data, etc. They are all over the place. I am not as computer literate as I would like to be and, it seems everytime I save or download anything they go onto so many different places. I never can seem to figure out where they are and how to save them in one particular area. HELP!! That’s so frustrating. I’m definately going to follow this blog and hopefully I can decifer it all. Thank you again😥

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rose, it can feel overwhelming sometimes! My advice is to just start at the beginning, and do it a little at a time. My first step is to write a list of where you think many of your files are. For example, if you’ve downloaded a lot of records, there are probably a lot of genealogy files in your Downloads folder and/or on your Desktop on your computer. Start with those folders when you start Step #3. If your home computer is reliable and isn’t giving you any problems, you can put your Master Archive here, since it’s easiest (this is in Step #2). Take baby steps and it won’t be so overwhelming! Ask a tech-savvy family member or neighbor for help if you get stuck, or feel free to contact me if you have any questions! (There’s a contact box on the “About Me tab if you want to email me.)


Leave a Reply to EvaAnne Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.